On Wednesday, the U.S. House of Representatives saw something it has not seen in eight years: an old-fashioned floor takeover.
Congressional Democrats, furious they have not had the opportunity to vote on gun control measures, are vowing to hold up legislative business on the House floor until Republican leadership agrees to put bills to a vote.
In particular, many Democratic members — and a handful of Republicans — would like to see some form of legislation that would restrict the ability of those on government terror or no-fly watchlists to buy weapons, an idea that has gained traction in the wake of the mass shooting perpetrated in Orlando.
The Democrats’ effort, which is being called a “sit-in,” began around 11:30 a.m., with a few members, including civil rights legend Rep. John Lewis, D-Georgia, sitting down on the floor of the House.
More and more members joined as the word got out. Speeches from members were punctuated by applause and shouts of “No bill, no break” — the Democrats’ rallying call to remain in the chamber until an agreement is reached on bringing a bill to the floor.
Three Minnesota Democratic representatives — Reps. Keith Ellison, Betty McCollum, and Rick Nolan — participated. Rep. Collin Peterson, who is broadly not supportive of gun control, hadn’t shown up at the protest as of the time this story was published. Rep. Tim Walz is in Minnesota attending to family following the death of his brother on Sunday.
Sens. Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, along with other Democratic senators, each stopped by in a show of solidarity. Their party offered two gun control amendments, including the so-called “no fly, no buy” provision, in the Senate on Monday. Both failed.
As of press time, the House sit-in is ongoing. The last effort of this kind happened in 2008, when Republicans, then in the minority, held up business to demand a vote on legislation to expand domestic drilling of oil. (They eventually got their vote.)
Minnesota Democrats say they simply want their proposals to receive a fair hearing and a fair vote in the House. The best chance to advance some kind of watch list gun bill, at the moment, appears to be a compromise being brokered by Maine GOP Sen. Susan Collins.
McCollum, who spoke passionately and without a mic before her colleagues on the House floor, told MinnPost that she believes progress is possible and praised Collins’ effort.
“There are enough Republicans that want common-sense gun legislation that would vote with Democrats to craft a bill that people could find common ground on to move forward,” she said. “But we’re denied a vote, an opportunity to function and work with others across the aisle to solve this problem of limiting access to assault weapons to people who do harm.”
Nolan told MinnPost that he is supportive of the “no-fly, no-buy” law, despite the concerns of some — many of them Republicans — that denying people Second Amendment rights on the basis of a watchlist is a violation of due process.
“If they’ll let us bring this legislation to the floor of the House,” he said, “we can find some way to make sure people get due process. We can also find a way to keep people on the terrorist list that are not allowed to fly — they should not be allowed to go and buy weapons.”
McCollum broadly expressed frustration with the control exerted by the majority party on movement of legislation. “There’s nothing in the constitution, there’s nothing in the tradition of the House of this majority of the majority having to agree on something to bring a bill up,” she said.
Ellison criticized GOP leadership, telling MinnPost that “so far, Paul Ryan has just decided it’s better to hope it blows over. But I don’t think we’re going to let it.” He called on the Speaker to “do what’s fair, come give us a vote, and everyone can vote the way they want.”
But Nolan seemed pleased that his party had found a work-around.
“The Senate has filibusters and other ways they can obstruct action to secure action on something important to people. We don’t have any of those vehicles in the House, but apparently we found one,” he said. “It’s called a sit-in.”
As the effort stretched into its fifth hour, Ellison described the sit-in as a turning point. “People have just had it,” he said. “Just had it. After Orlando, we did a moment of silence, and everyone’s like, how sick are we of this?”
“I think people just reached their breaking point,” he said. “You have some members that are pretty progressive and some that are on the conservative end, too. But they’re all demanding we at least get some votes on some basic issues.”
Update: This article has been updated with comments from Rep. Keith Ellison.